After World War II the United States dominated the globe as a military colossus, projecting sea and air power with aircraft carriers named after what the US Navy considered to be great American presidents.
One of the newer nuclear-powered carriers, the USS Richard M. Nixon and her support ships, had steamed in the waters off Barbuda in support of the ongoing combat operations there ordered by the President. At the time this represented the only combat ready carrier power on the east coast, since the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower was half-way across the Atlantic embarked on a deployment to the Mediterranean, the USS Herbert Hoover was already in the Med, the USS Calvin Coolidge was monitoring the whirlpool near New Zealand, and the USS Warren G. Harding and USS William Howard Taft were both in drydock for overhaul. The remaining six carriers were based in the Pacific and were unavailable for Operation Caribbean Rage.
After nearly a week, and despite one of the most intense air campaigns in American history which leveled the port and every building larger than a hovel in the tiny hamlet of Codrington, three successive attempts to take the island by amphibious assault had failed. Invading troops would literally find the ground open up beneath their feet and fall through and nine times out of ten not even their bodies could be found.
Then the unthinkable, the unbelievable happened. The USS Richard M. Nixon was suddenly hit in so many places and sunk so quickly that the Navy didn’t even have video footage of her demise.
After the Chief of Naval Operations advised President Ford, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower was ordered to make a starboard turn and steam for Barbuda, a leg that would take nearly three days. She was twenty-four hours from arriving on station when Diane Sawyer began to broadcast live from Codrington, the only reporter to manage to do so during the entire evolution of Caribbean Rage. She even covered an attempt by Marines to attack the house from where she had initially set up to do her reporting.
After discerning that Sawyer had moved to the house next door, a seemingly endless series of attempts by attack helicopters to take out this house were nipped in the bud by Church of End Dome air assets and woman-portable air defense systems, providing a great deal more fireworks for Sawyers’s crew to capture and broadcast. But with the immanent arrival of the Ike, Dory recommended that Diane Sawyer get back in the air with her again, for two reasons. One, the house would be the first target of an air-strike package from the carrier, and two, Sawyer might want to get footage of Del’s counter-response.
And so once again Dory took Diane Sawyer, her cameraman, and her producer up in her flying saucer and out over the waters north of Barbuda. There was no need to resort to night-vision once more, because the USS Eisenhower was lit up as though for Christmas for aircraft launch and recovery operations.
Most of the radio traffic monitored by Dory had consisted of scrambled fragments of voice as orders flew back and forth under encryption, but at one point a woman’s voice went out in the clear, speaking with entirely unique accent. “Alpha Whiskey this is Del of the Church of End Dome, over.”
Alpha Whiskey was shorthand for the commander of the air war, the commanding officer of the cruiser which was accompanying the carrier or at least the officer who was standing in for the CO of that cruiser. Del repeated her call, and this time there came a response. “Del this is Alpha Whiskey, state your piece, over.”
“Alpha Whiskey, this is Del, we are observing that your carrier is lit up and has turned into the wind. Be advised that the instant the first strike aircraft starts to roll down the flight deck we will sink your bird farm almost as soon as the plane clears the catapult. You might want to advise your admiral of that fact. I should think that what we did to the Nixon would establish whether I’m bluffing or not. Del out.”
Diane Sawyer noted that the coded voice fragments reached a sort of crescendo after that. Obviously Del’s comments were being weighed, but apparently not by wiser heads. One of the new F-14 Tomcat fighters started to roll off the deck and was pitched into the wind.
Hovering in the night sky over the carrier at 15,000 feet and matching her course and speed were a dozen stealthy flying saucers rigged as unmanned drones, their crew compartments filled instead with a four thousand pounds of high explosive paste. When the F-14 cleared the deck, as Del promised, these drones cut power and allowed themselves to fall under gravity.
The superstructure of the carrier sustained a direct hit that blew out the island’s windows and outer skin of steel, instantly killing most of the ship’s senior officers.
The forward elevator was hit by a second drone and warped in such a way that it could not be used to move any more planes up from the hangar deck. The blast was sufficiently powerful to throw dozens of flight crew overboard.
The aft part of the flight deck, already filled with planes fueled and armed and ready to launch, was hit by a third drone and exploded in a series of chain reactions scattering burning parts of planes and bodies everywhere.
The fourth drone dropped through the middle elevator, which was flush with the hangar deck. When it exploded, the blast set up another chain reaction of secondary explosions among the planes and ordinance being prepped down there as well as setting the criss-crossing fuel lines on fire.
With the initial damage done, the rest of the drones dropped successively in pairs through the damaged elevators and exploded one after the other, five and six, seven and eight, nine and ten, each blast opening holes through two or three more decks until the eleventh and twelfth drones punched all the way through to the ocean.
After that seawater started to flood into the red hot interior of the carrier and some of this water turned to steam. The aft end of the carrier remained more or less buoyant while the ship pitched forward at the same time she turned turtle. The Ike went under the waves so fast there wasn’t even time to call abandon ship, and there was no officer left alive with the authority to do so at any rate. All of this carnage was captured on camera by Diane Sawyer and her crew. Dory said, “Welp. A slightly different death than the Nixon, but just as fiery and quick.”
When Dory touched down back in Antigua, Sawyer, who had been shocked to utter silence since the sinking of the Ike managed to say, in a trembling voice, “At least I got the round trip you promised me, Dory. Thank you.”
Dory said, “But I don’t think you are very much safer now. Dory says that one fighter they managed to launch before we hit them went straight to the house you were broadcasting from and took it out. Essentially your pal Jerry Ford threw away an aircraft carrier and another five thousand people just to get you off the air.”
“It looks like he succeeded at doing that despite everything,” Sawyer said. “My producer tells me we’ve just been fired and my own network refuses to accept our feed. No one will see the death of the Ike.”
“Then I’d say welcome to the Swarm, Miss Sawyer,” Dory told her.
“Please. Call me Diane.”
“Okay. People trust what you say, Diane, it doesn’t matter if it comes over cable or broadcast networks or or as neutrinos in the Swarm. We’ll get your footage out there. And I have no doubt that you have many more questions about what is going on. We are prepared to provide any assistance you need as well as any protection that we can offer, which as you might have seen recently, is considerable.”
“And what is going on?”
“Only the second American civil war.”
126 – DOGFIGHT
Seven B’nei Elohim Sandwich fighter pilots leaped into the Lunar sky from the roof of Taurus to enter the fray. Baron Bayard established good old-fashioned encrypted radio contact on a UHF frequency. “This is Illustrious, radio check, over.”
They reported in by rank. Ash-blonde Stephanie leveled out her fighter and said, “Illustrious, this is Valorous, roger, over.”
Red-headed Amanda checked in saying, “Illustrious, this is Ardent, roger, over.”
When it was her turn pretty dark-haired Adirael Larund said, “Illustrious, this is Resolute, roger, over.”
Blonde pixie Suzanne set her fighter busy doing a Built-In-Test and piped up saying, “Illustrious, this is Lancer, roger, over.”
Shaven-headed Tori got her buggy transmitter working just in time and said, “Illustrious, this is Tornado, roger, over.”
Dark-haired, slender little Candra looked through her canopy at Bayard’s fighter nearby and chimed in, “Illustrious, this is Talon, roger, over.”
“Pink Wing this is Illustrious, roger, close it up tight ladies. I want visual contact with all of you. Illustrious, out.”
From the first day these women joined his team, Bayard made them drill. And drill. Bayard drilled because he wanted no hesitancy to remain. Combat must be learned in the muscles. It should be a dance. Second nature. There should be no transition from training to the real thing, and the real thing had finally come.
The Persecutor was easily identified. Each enemy ship had a radar with unique “fingerprints”, which were certain defects in the transmitter. These defects, which were little dips on the tops of the pulses, or slightly ringing pulses, lent an electronic “personality” to the signal going out. The Beaters had long ago matched the radar fingerprints to the ship, and they had also shared that information with the B’nei Elohim. Stephanie said, “This is Valorous, I have identified the destroyer, designate track one zero niner.”
Soon after the seven fighters had all gathered close together Bayard barked his initial orders. “So let’s get them interested in us. Spread to every corner of the sky. Then make your runs. Sting ’em with random attacks. No pattern! Set your Multiblip Repeater to attack formation Delta.”
The Multiblip Repeater was a jamming device unlike any other. Most jammers filled the enemy’s radar picture with clouds of static. But the Multiblip Repeater simulated the echoes of real contacts. So mixed in with the real blips of Bayard’s seven randomly flying fighters were the false blips of a dozen ghost ships in a precise “V” attack profile. This was Attack Formation Delta.
Belphegor directed his arsenal toward the juicy targets of all those blips lined up in a straight “V”. He instructed the ships under his command to ignore the other blips, the randomly moving blips, as silly attempts to jam their search radars.
The Multiblip Repeater was even more clever in that it deleted contacts one by one as the invaders thought they scored “hits.” Not until Bayard’s people actually passed to within visual range did the cherub realize he had been tricked, but by then it was much too late. The first pass had to count. Bayard’s people made sure to hit all the good stuff, the missile racks and most of the gun mounts.
Still, the Persecutor reached out and slapped Candra as she passed by, crippling her ship with close-in laser fire. “I’m hit!” she screamed as her fighter spun wildly out of the zone of combat. But eventually her nerves settled down and she was able to bring her ship under semi-control.
“This is Talon,” she said when the immediate crisis had passed. “I’m all right.”
“Can you make it back to the city?” Bayard asked her.
“I don’t know. I’m going to set down on the surface until I can check out the extent of my damage.”
“If it’s bad, Candra, don’t try to limp back into the battle.”
Candra didn’t know it yet, but the Battle of Luna was over for her. The damage was far worse than she realized, and when she suited up and went over the exterior of her ship she would marvel that she had made it down to the ground in one piece.
At the same time that Candra had sustained her disabling hit, Amanda and Suzanne’s blows combined to score a fatal hit on the Repressor. It fell like a stone to the surface of the Moon and impacted on the hard regolith, killing all twenty-five men aboard. Then the six remaining sandwich fighters headed back out and regrouped, tearing a path away to free space.
Bayard had set out to interest the destroyer in his tiny force. Persecutor was definitely interested now. With the small shreds of dignity it had left remaining to it the wounded warship and her own retinue of fighters, bombers, and shuttles turned to stately pursue their attackers.
Bayard said, “Pink Wing, execute Formation Delta. Scramble your repeaters.” Everyone expertly complied. Now it was the actual fighters which were in a precise V pattern and the false electronic blips which were moving randomly.
Cherub Belphegor had picked up on things right away. Now he scoffed at the primitive attempt to fool his radar with a V of dots all lined up with (it was so obvious now) machine precision. Not the rough formations to be expected from inexperienced human women pretending to be combat star pilots like the battle-hardened nephilim aviation officers of House Gerash. This time he directed his ship’s missile and gun-fire to the randomly moving contacts.
“It’s electronic warfare,” Bayard said to himself when he watched his deception work. He was in a rhythm with the other five gals. They all functioned as one unit, and more important, they were all having enormous fun.
Bayard allowed the burning destroyer to pass into the zone of space defined by himself and the five planes under his command. The cornered Persecutor slowly withered away under Pink Wing’s continuing attack. Belphegor’s smooth brown ellipsoid was on fire and had giant ragged bites taken out of it. Parts of the hull had been exposed to vacuum, sucking some unstrapped personnel out into space.
Command shifted to a secondary bridge deeper within the highly compartmentalized interior where pressurized and undamaged work spaces were still to be found, but it was a fool’s errand. Persecutor could no longer run nor see nor fight. There remained only vengeance.
In her death throes Persecutor, true to her name, lashed out with a blind Bulldog missile which found its way to the Resolute. Impact. The dense knot of water held in a phantom quantum state inside her fighter went up all at once, creating a vast white explosion completely out of proportion to the fighter’s tiny size, much as a macro-bomb punched well above its own weight.
“Poor Adirael!” Suzanne cried, breaking radio discipline in her grief, because she knew the Fallen Angel, not having been Changed, would never live again.
Bayard smiled through his own tears. “This never was about us trying to live as long as we can,” he said. “Don’t you see? Avoiding death never was the glue that bound us together.”
Suzanne nodded to herself. No, that glue is love!
When the overlapping glowing swirls of water vapor from Adirael’s demise grew and faded to invisibility all eyes turned to the final doom of the imperial destroyer. None of the officers and crewmen of Persecutor survived the final blow, a ship-to-ship Brushfire-B missile fired by Bayard through a gap in the hull with a thousand pound macro warhead, blowing the ship into bright glowing embers which scattered to every corner of the sky.
So ended Cherub Belphegor, victor of countless campaigns in the Eggbeater at Alpha Centauri, at the hands of a Gold Beard and four human females pretending (as the cherub supposed) to be star pilots.
After only a few moments of shaking themselves and checking for broken bones the troop transports and their escorting wings turned and lumbered hell-for-leather after the B’nei Elohim fighters to avenge the Persecutor. Gradually the battle became strung out on a line only fifty thousand feet above the Moon, making a beeline for the city of Taurus.
“There’s gotta be an idiot in charge,” Bayard told her girls over the coded channel. “This is too easy. No way a worthy foe just walk into our triple A over the city.”
The line of Pink and Blue beads lengthened and thinned out. Blue forces slowly found themselves isolated with small enemies on two sides. The five gnats became four. In the slug-match that ensued Tori aboard the Tornado suffered a disabling hit. It wasn’t as serious as the damage to the Talon, but she had to withdraw from the battle and return to Taurus.
Still, the forces of Asmodeus were strung out along one vulnerable line. Configured this way, one-dimensionally, each ship could assist only it’s two immediate neighbors or assail at most two fighters. Meanwhile, the entire formation passed directly over Taurus City, which attacked the enemy ships from below using its heavy defensive lasers with impunity. Asmodeus dared not return fire because he assumed his unnamed objective was somewhere inside Taurus and he needed the city intact.
This was a classic textbook case of what not to do, studied by naval historians for centuries, from the time of wooden sailing ships right through the era of steel battleships in the first and second world wars. Asmodeus had allowed the B’nei Elohim to cross his “T”. And what made it even more unforgivable was that it was a stationary city bristling with cannon (and not a line of maneuvering warships) that did the crossing.
In the ensuing storm of fire the invasion fleet broke formation, went into complete disarray, and individually set course to get to the Moon’s surface as quickly as possible. All of the enemy ships took damage, but the Subjugator was crippled by a particularly well-paced shot from the city and her descent turned into a free-fall as she spiraled down to the ground. All hands aboard died in the crash.
Hunky noted this sparrowfall from the War Room in the heart of the city and said, “I get the impression the Empire came out here with their second-best football team and expected to go up against nothing but cheerleaders.”
So only nine Imperial troop transport shuttles successfully landed in the predesignated place, a small valley in the Taurus-Littrow highlands about ten miles from Taurus. Very close by was the actual landing spot of the 1972 Apollo 17 expedition, where the initials of Gene Cernan’s daughter had remained intact as Robyn had promised him.
Bayard came in low over them and scored a direct hit on the troopship Oppressor before they could debark, killing or seriously wounding sixteen of the Americans aboard.
Asmodeus saw this and his anger, already smoldering from the loss of Persecutor, burned white hot. When Bayard came around again for another pass, this time with his surviving girls in formation behind him, Asmodeus prepared to let Bayard have it with a shoulder-launched surface-to-air missile (although the Moon had no air, so a different name for his weapon would have been more appropriate).
With effortlessness derived from countless opportunities over two centuries affording him experience, Asmodeus shouldered his rocket canister and took meticulous aim while the rest of his people dove for cover.
From Bayard a laser touched the ground at the feet of Asmodeus, visible only as a glowing, searching orange cloud of dust. Azibeel took aim and fired, unperturbed and undeterred by Bayard’s attack. The passive, IR-homing, radar-silent surface-to-air missile found its way unerringly toward the intense heat of Bayard’s underthrusters.
Two objects crossed in the black lunar sky: Asmodeus’ missile and Bayard’s spacecraft. The intervening factor was a hot puff ball at the point of closest approach only three feet away from Bayard’s wildly evading fighter.
Bayard’s fighter tumbled in a flat spin to the surface of the moon like a tile thrown out a window. And so passed the second son of Queen Aurra, though she was long gone herself, two thousand years gone. Bayard was dead and the sudden loss of their leader frightened the remaining three star pilots off.
The so-called “air” campaign was largely over. Now the surviving Imperial shuttles could unload Asmodeus’ people and supplies unmolested in the vale of Taurus.
127 – DANICA
When Ruth Delaney answered the door the thin veneer of professionalism worn by DECON Special Agent Danica Fawn fell away. It was all Danica could do to keep her hands at her side. She could not keep her voice from breaking into a sob when she said, “I’m sorry, Ruth, I’ve never had to do this before.”
Ruth’s eyes widened as she slowly realized what must have happened. At length, she said, “I think I know why you’re here but I need to hear you say it.”
Danica glanced from side to side. “Please let me come inside.”
Ruth nodded and held the door for her.
Danica stood in the center of Ruth’s living room and turned to face her. “Ruth, Special Agent Kurt Delaney died in the line of duty this evening, just about an hour ago. I’m so sorry!”
Ruth’s face crinkled up like a sheet of foil then. Danica thought, I’m doing this wrong, but she felt compelled to embrace Ruth and they both cried for long minutes. Danica tried to answer the questions that bubbled up amid Ruth’s anguished sobs. How? Why?
“It was an accident, he fell down some kind of mine shaft, it all happened very quickly. Why? He was trying to stop someone kidnap a child.”
It was the hardest thing she ever did. Danica neglected to tell Ruth that it was going to take perhaps a week to even retrieve the body of her husband, or that it was going to be a closed-casket funeral, or that Kurt died in a paroxysm of such pain and horror that Danica would not wish it on her worse enemy. No one deserved what Kurt got. And when she left the widow alone Danica was in a turmoil of conflicting thoughts:
That wasn’t how they do it on TV. That wasn’t how a male agent would have done it. They should have had a week of training to teach me how to do it. No one should ever have to do it. I’m a federal agent. It was my duty. A widow should never get the bad news from a third party. I’m a human being.
All these things burned through Danica’s mind as she choppered, then walked, to the office of the King County sheriff in downtown Seattle. By the time she walked inside she decided that if, God forbid, she lost another agent she would handle it exactly the same way.
Sheriff Vic stood in front of a giant wall map of King County, and several of her deputies gathered around her. After studying it for a few minutes, Victoria said, “There’s only three bridges across the Green River in Gonorrhea Gulch. The Enumclaw-Black Diamond Road, the Franklin Bridge, and this one at Palmer. I want a unit at each bridge, and I want enough units on these two roads to either side of Mark’s house on the north side of the river that they can remain in eye shot of each other.”
“I’ll tell dispatch right now Sheriff.”
Vic looked away from the map when Danica came in, flanked by two deputies. One of the deputies said, “Sorry, Sheriff, she pulled rank. Special Agent Danica Fawn, this is Sheriff Victoria Shybear.”
“Rank my ass,” Vic said. “Special Agent Fawn, this isn’t a domestic enemies thing, this is a missing little girl.”
“Yes, Sheriff, your own little girl I understand. And this map tells me you don’t know who took her.”
“Well, there’s something you don’t know either, Agent Fawn,” Vic warned. “You don’t know how many tons of bricks are about to fall on DECON if you have her.”
“We don’t have Hope,” Danica said. “We watched someone take her from your back yard. A woman took her.”
That information silenced Vic for a beat. Finally she said, “That could be very good or very bad.”
“First tell my why DECON was surveilling my house.”
“Sheriff, please, let’s not insult each other’s intelligence. You know what my agency does and why. I came here immediately after consoling the widow of my partner Agent Kurt Delany, who died trying to stop Hope from being abducted.”
Vic looked at Danica as though for the first time, because the template of “monster” the B’nei Elohim always employed to look at DECON agents didn’t seem to fit her at all. She said, “Then it’s a bad day for both of us. You lost an agent, I lost my little girl and now they tell me my ex-husband just died in a plane crash.”
“I’m very sorry, Sheriff,” Danica said, and she fell silent out of respect for what Vic must be feeling.
At length Vic said, with sincerity, “There are things I can tell you.”
“And there are things I can tell you,” Danica said. “I can think of no better opportunity than on the way to the scene of the crime.”
“How do you know it’s a crime?”
“You tell me, Sheriff. I walk in here and you’re talking to your deputies about setting roadblocks. The girl has gone missing and someone must have called you.”
Vic weighed the proposal of trading information, and decided it could be a good way to measure what DECON thought they knew about the B’nei Elohim. That might be worth the risk right there. Victoria said, “It will take an hour just to get to my house from here.”
“I have a chopper at our disposal.”
“Fine, but one deputy comes with us.”
It was dark now, and Aliwe had come inside the house. When the B’nei Elohim notified Mark that Hope had gone missing from Boot Camp he asked Aliwe flat out if she had seen her big sister but Aliwe merely shook her head. The girl seemed to be acting strangely, as though she were hiding something, but Mark also knew Aliwe, despite her very young age, was also fully B’nei Elohim, Begotten, not Made, and it was no use trying to pry information loose from any of them if they had their mind set on keeping it a secret.
Vic felt her stomach drop away as the DECON chopper lifted from the roof of the federal building downtown. When they had gained sufficient altitude to see over Beacon Hill she and Danica spotted a black snake writhing among the orange lights on the far southern horizon that was the sparsely developed Green River Gorge. Time for their little talk.
“We know the Church of End Dome has two factions,” Danica said.
Victoria dismissed this with a hand wave. “The White Wing hasn’t been a factor since the Forties.”
“I’m not talking about the White Wing and the Red Wing, I’m talking about the Begotten, such as yourself, and the Made, such as the Jills.”
“And if I agree to your characterization of myself as Begotten Church of End Dome,” Victoria said with mock concern, “then I’ve just confessed to a federal agent of the felony of conspiracy to provide aid to fugitives. Think of my political career.”
“I am indeed thinking of your political career, Sheriff hence the helicopter ride, and, I presume, also, your choice of a deputy to accompany us who is not himself very likely to talk.”
“Very well, Agent Fawn, then to make this little heart-to-heart go a bit smoother, I should make you aware that the whole Church of End Dome thing is entirely a ruse for public consumption. We call ourselves the B’nei Elohim, which roughly translates to ‘offspring of the gods.’ And I’m not sure you’re fully aware of the reason you’ve been having so much trouble with us over the years, which is simply that you’ve been tangling with genuine demigods.”
“Fine. Demigods. Mutants. Whatever. The Agency knows that there are two factions of what you are now naming the B’nei Elohim, and both factions are intensely focused on your daughter. Naturally, this attention has drawn the gaze of the Agency on your daughter as well. That is the reason she was being watched by myself and Agent Delany. What I’d like to know, Sheriff Vic, other than your own feelings as a mother of course, is simply this: What is so interesting about your little girl?”
“You’re jumping too far ahead, Agent Fawn. I told you something about us, now give me a taste. You said there are things you can tell me. Lay a juicy one out for me.”
“We know the ‘Made’ faction of the B’nei Elohim have infiltrated DECON somehow. So we’re divided too. Maybe, Sheriff, it’s not entirely outside the realm of the possible that you and I might share roughly the same set of interests.”
“Okay, Agent Fawn, I didn’t know that,” Sheriff Vic admitted. “You were correct to put me down in the ‘Begotten’ category, but you might not be aware that I’ve been largely out of the loop when it comes to the B’nei Elohim. This was necessary to win my election.”
“Sheriff, you say you didn’t know that they had done it, but do you know how the Jills might have wormed their way into the Agency?”
“Obviously the promise of eternal youth is a powerful incentive.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I think you do, Agent Fawn. You are a high-ranking employee at DECON, you already know about the connectors under the pony tails, or the buns in the case of the Jills. That knowledge goes back to World War II. You know we can use a cable and literally dump our minds into the bodies of other people, or even just into data storage, then back out again. With the Begotten of the B’nei Elohim, like me, we only bring the Change to our own children, and only if they choose it. But the Jills recruit from outside. So they have the greater numbers.”
“And with those numbers comes influence within your group.”
“Correct. There is no way we could withstand your DECON without the Jills as cannon fodder, and they know it. Also, as it happens, the Jills put a premium on never allowing themselves to get old. So they have this bizarre time-sharing scheme that’s a bit like multiple parties sharing one lakeside cabin, and this is combined with something like a Ponzi scheme, or a pyramid scheme, but with female bodies rather than money, because everyone wants to ride the young perky stuff coming in, not the old wrinkly saggy stuff going out.”
“So where does your daughter come in?”
“Her name is Hope, and that’s very, very deliberate. Hope is a way to solve, all at once, the eternal youth thing, and the numbers thing, and the thing about time spent as frozen data. Then the Begotten simply won’t need the Made anymore. We can take our Change Ball and go away. And the Jills know it.”
When Victoria showed up at Mark Felton’s house with Agent Fawn the rotors of the helicopter that brought them were still spinning as it sat parked, with the engine off, on a playground two blocks away. Victoria had also brought along a uniformed officer on four legs she called Deputy Dog, a big mean Doberman she was wrangling on a sturdy leash. She said, “Mark! What’s black and brown and looks great on a wingnut judge?”
“Hi Vic.” Mark wasn’t exactly happy to see her, after all, his daughter was missing, and he wondered how Vic could crack a joke just now. But on the helicopter flight down Vic realized Hope must have been taken by Robyn. The end game she had always known would come had finally come. It was the only thing that made sense. Still, Vic needed to prove it to her own satisfaction. She made the introductions between Mark and Special Agent Danica Fawn.
When Danica saw Aliwe she said, “Her sister was there when Hope was taken. I saw her.”
“Is that true, Aliwe?” Vic snapped. The girl shook her head firmly but said nothing.
“That’s not acceptable, Aliwe!” Danica snapped, even more sharply than the girl’s mother did, but Aliwe wouldn’t break.
“Good luck getting any more out of her,” Vic said. “Has DECON ever gotten anything out of any us, even at Yellow Mountain?” Then it was Danica’s turn to shake her own head.
“Let’s go see Hope’s room,” Vic said.
Mark was shocked. “Vic! Do you think we’re hiding Hope?”
“Don’t be a dick. My deputy needs to get a whiff.”
After Deputy Dog smelled Hope’s things Mark led the way through the sliding glass patio door in the family room. Victoria could hear the dim roar of a loop of I-86 less than a half-mile away. The gate on the side of the house was still locked. Two sturdy wooden fences isolated Mark’s yard from his neighbors. Vic knew them well.
“Uncle Frank there,” Mark pointed for Agent Fawn, “and Aunt Susan in the other house over there. Well, that’s what we call them, right Vic? Lovely retired folks, a widow and a widower, but I don’t think they talk to each other because our house sits here between them. They both think Aliwe is adorable, which of course she is.”
Vic looked at Mark, but said nothing.
He said, “Yes I already asked them if they’ve seen her or anything funny. They didn’t even know Aliwe had a sister.”
The back of the lot consisted of dense woods that fell immediately away from the property line in a sloping drop. The little burgs of Franklin and Black Diamond were visible far below. To Agent Fawn Vic said, “Behold: Gonorrhea Gulch.”
At that particular time neither Vic nor Mark felt like re-telling the story of how five girls from down in that gully gave half the boys at Green River High School the clap. Mark’s house sat on the edge of a strange dark corner of King County. Below Howard Hanson dam the Green River ran for twelve miles of twisting class III and IV whitewater in a canyon with sheer three hundred-foot walls of sandstone. The Green River Gorge slithered like a black flaw running right through the illuminated perfectly geometric maze of suburbia. Misfits who couldn’t stand the universal monoculture were attracted to this place the way cockroaches were attracted to the dingy rear of one’s refrigerator. And some of those “misfits” were child molesters.
Deputy Dog sniffed the seat of the swing that Hope had used when she met her sister, then he was amped up, ready to drag Victoria at the end of the leash. He made for the woods, but he stopped right at the property line with a yelp and nothing Vic could say or do would make Dog go out there.
“What’s wrong?” Danica asked.
“Oh, it’s just that Deputy Dog doesn’t seem to want to go into the Bermuda Triangle of King County, that’s all,” Vic said. “You know what I’m talking about, don’t you, Agent Fawn?”
Danica was reluctant to speak of it, but she did admit to one spooky thing. “There’s a stand of alders down there…on more than one occasion I’ve found myself coming back out on the same trail I went in, and no memory of ever turning around.”
Vic guessed those particular incidents were just Yeshua having a bit of fun. She said, “And after what happened to your agent Kurt you probably want somebody who knows the Green River Gorge and knows what the hell she’s doing.”
“Do you have any suggestions, Sheriff?”
“I’m your woman, Agent Fawn. But if there’s one thing I know for sure about those woods, it’s no good going in there until morning. If whoever took my little girl walks out of there my two-legged deputies will nab them in a second. But if they stay put down there we’re going to need some light because it’s like an obstacle course in hell.”
128 – INBOUND
Everyone expected something dramatic and mind-bending when Lahatiel turned the key triggering the FTL Pod, perhaps something like the psychedelic light-show in the remarkable human film 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the travelers aboard Exiler felt absolutely nothing. A bloated Sol from just 0.44 AU away was suddenly centered on the forward viewport, and the liquid crystal layer polarized it to bearability but still no one dared look directly at it.
“As I suspected would be the case,” Hashmal Ithuriel said, “there’s no physical sensation of the faster-than-light hop, other than a shift in the view.”
“Is everyone all right?” Lahatiel asked.
Nobody reported anything wrong except Barakiel, who said, “Sir, we’ve got eighteen miles per second of velocity differential to dump that we’ve carried over from Barbelo.”
“Star to star, maybe,” Lahatiel said. “But our destination is Earth.”
“That makes it worse, sir. Almost twice as bad. We’re not even on the same orbital plane.”
Ithuriel said, “This system has two gas-giants and two ice giants. We don’t have those kind of planets at Centauri. If the Navigator is up to it we can use them as brakes.”
“I am up to it,” he said. “This job isn’t just connect the dots, it’s art.”
“Then the word is given,” Lahatiel said.
Barakiel set aside the star data provided by Ithuriel and started to thumb through an ephemeris of the Sol system compiled by the Navy.
Adnarel had her moment to shine getting them to Sol, now it was Barakiel’s turn. He knew he could do this without spending more than a few drops of propellant.
The first part of the job was a hop of 30 AU to deep blue Neptune, the furthest planet from Sol. Exiler emerged from the hop 665 thousand miles above the planet and ten hours later, Barakiel skipped over the dark cloudtops streaked with white clouds, allowing the upper atmosphere of the planet to slow the ship down some, but he didn’t enter so deep as to heat the rear of Exiler beyond its ability to tolerate. “The important thing isn’t so much the braking,” Barakiel told Lahatiel, “but the bend in our course, which sets us up for the next encounter.”
Then it was twelve hours back out to the edge of the bubble where they could make the next hop.
During the time the Exiler spent approaching and departing Neptune, Suriel used the Big Eye to survey the moons of the planet. At that time NASA was preparing but had not yet launched the robotic probe called Voyager 2, which would conduct humanity’s first survey twelve years later.
The largest moon had an atmosphere, Suriel found, and orbited Neptune in such a way that suggested it was a Kuiper belt object like Pluto that was subsequently captured. During Suriel also found four other moons that were larger than about a hundred miles, and she had no doubt there were many more that were smaller.
The next hop was to pale green Uranus, the next planet closer to the sun from Neptune. This world was somewhat less attractive, since it has a very low internal temperature and therefore almost no weather. Cloud features were present, but difficult to spot, Suriel only saw a handful of them during the encounter, even at the closest approach, and she wasn’t entirely sure about those.
Exiler emerged on the gravitational bubble of Uranus at a distance of 613 thousand miles, so it was another full day spent in transit, broken up by a terrifying bit of aerobraking in the middle. Suriel found a total of six moons larger than a hundred miles, but no very large ones. The biggest was about a thousand miles across.
Uranus had a system of rings. It wasn’t nearly as extensive as the one boasted by Saturn, but the sight of it got Ithuriel and Jabniel reminiscing about their younger days, and the story fascinated the crew. They had no idea a person could survive a sub-macro.
At length the Exiler burst through into gravitationally clear space over Uranus having dumped about thirty miles per second of differential velocity they carried over from Barbelo, relative to Luna, and Barakiel had done this using less than a mile per second of delta-V. “So now we know,” he said. “With planets as slingshots, and an FTL Pod and a very clever navigator can get you where you need to go and it’s all very easy on the propellant.”
Everyone was suitably impressed, although Adnarel would never admit so. Lahatiel was not unduly surprised, he had put together his crew and knew they were the best of the best. “Our next stop, Erel Barakiel, is Earth’s moon Luna. Line us up on where the Moon will be in the three hours or so of light travel-time that separates us and I’ll turn the key.”
The Point Four Four AU rule, applied to Luna, dumped Exiler just 18,000 miles above the moon. The carrier Tresspasser was a half-million miles away but lighting up the space around her with search radar to prevent any counterstroke by the B’nei Elohim. This radar appeared on Suriel’s instruments and she reported the contact to Lahatiel.
“Now that’s damn puzzling,” he said, and he pulled a wired microphone out of the overhead. “Give me a tight communications beam from here to Taurus City on Luna. Three hundred thirty four megahertz and clear.”
“I can carry out that order, sir,” Suriel said, “but will I require Barakiel to give me the exact location of Taurus on the surface of the Earth’s moon.”
From the display at his own console, which was mirrored at Suriel’s station, Erel Barakiel used his finger to circle the location of the city on the rim of Mare Serenitatis, which was in the northern hemisphere, facing the Earth. From where the Exiler emerged after the FTL hop, it was on the far left limb of their vantage of the Moon.
Suriel nodded to Lahatiel when it was ready, and Lahatiel began his transmission. “Taurus City, this is Ophan Lahatiel of the frigate Exiler, please respond.” Little did he know, although the directed beam entirely missed the Tresspasser, it would be easy for the nephilim remaining aboard Asmodeus’ transport ships in the Taurus-Littrow valley to intercept the call and know Exiler was nearby, but they were too busy monitoring their own battle frequencies to scan the entire spectrum.
“Ophan Lahatiel commanding Exiler, this is Hunky of Taurus City. I am aware you desire to make personnel transfer, but unfortunately this must be delayed. We are currently fending off an air and ground attack from other elements of your Navy and it wouldn’t be safe, over.”
“Hunky, this is Exiler, do you require assistance? We are prepared to help you in any way we can. Over.”
“Exiler, this is Hunky, We have already dealt with the air assault in suitable fashion, and believe we can deal with the ground invasion in pretty much the same way, but the Patriarch has arranged for a diversion on Earth, an invasion of Israel by the Egyptians. This has had the effect of dividing our forces. If you could help us out on that front you would have our undying gratitude, over.”
“Hunky, this is Exiler, is there anything specific you have in mind, over?”
In the space of less than a second, a sphere of water appeared directly in front of the frigate, and this contained a small object within it. “Exiler, this is Hunky, do you see a ball of water floating in front of your vessel? Over.”
“Direct from Canterwood,” Ithuriel mused. “Courtesy of Yeshua Bat-El.”
“Hunky, this is Exiler, affirmative, over.”
“Exiler, this is Hunky. Contained within is a very special warhead along the lines of what the Beaters used to surprise the Emperor at Hybla and Dia recently. This is what we would like you to use against the Egyptian buildup in the Sinai Peninsula. Over.”
“Can we do it, Adnarel?”
“Yes sir, if they thought to miniaturize the weapon to fit in a torpedo forebody. We still have one air-to-ground warshot. But I will need help from Kushiel to swap it in.”
“Hunky, this is Exiler, we will comply with that strike order, over.”
“Exiler, this is Hunky, thank you, but also I would also ask if there is room to squeeze two more travelers aboard your ship before you arrive at Taurus, over.”
“Hunky, this is Exiler, there is indeed, over.”
“Exiler, this is Hunky. Excellent! Then I would ask for you to remain in low Earth orbit, with an inclination of at least 47 degrees, and wait for a rendezvous with a very small shuttle, over.”
“Hunky, this is Exiler, will this shuttle require special communications with us to make the approach? Over.”
“Exiler this is Hunky, as a matter of fact, the pilot of the shuttle will not. She will know where you are and how to draw near to you. I’ll let her explain how she is able to do so when she arrives. Thank you, Lahatiel, and take care, Hunky out.”
Lahatiel said, “My wife and I will suit up for EVA just like we did at White Rock and retrieve the warhead. Sar Adnarel, you are relieved of duty here on the flight-deck, I want you back in Engineering working with Kushiel, putting together everything you need to build up the warhead into that torpedo. Suriel, you will stay on watch, and look for any sign that Tresspasser knows we’re here. Barakiel, after we have completed the EVA you will move out of the gravitational influence of Luna and do a short FTL hop to Earth, then drop us into a very low orbit, maybe ninety miles, something that will hold us for a day or two.”
“I will stand by to return to the flight-deck, sir,” Adnarel said, “in case the Navigation Officer has trouble hitting the bubble around the Earth.”
Barakiel said, “Funny.”
129 – GALATEA
The going was slow as Del and Brand made their way out of town. The road paralleled the canal due north through Al-Kubri, which was seized in the first few hours of the IDF counter-assault, as well as the town of Al-Shallufa, which fell that evening along with the Ahmed Hamdi Tunnel under the canal, which for years was a major IDF standing objective in the event of an invasion from Egypt.
With the tunnel in hand Israel could pour troops, tanks, and materiel across in a kind of counter-punch to the Egyptian main intrusion to the north. But the highway and railroad to Cairo was still strongly held by the Egyptian Second Army, and the town of Gineifa was being contested as the key to the whole area.
The forces of Israel were still a long way from being able to seriously threaten the main incursion at Ismailia, at the halfway point on the canal. Soon it wouldn’t matter, as Egypt was nearing the completion of the task of fully supplying the bridgehead in the Sinai east of the Canal.
At the crossing of the Gineifa-Qabrit road Del and Brand could go no further. They were flagged down at a checkpoint and forced to give up their vehicle on the standing orders of Lt. Colonel David Shazar on the Gineifa front. They could not continue on without a set of papers which they did not have.
The bureaucratic nonsense evaporated away the closer one got to the actual fighting. So Del and Brand found themselves on foot.
Some of the walking wounded, the simple first-aid cases, were being detoured onto the road that ran northeast of the checkpoint and across the salt marshes and flats to Qabrit, at the place where land pinched between the Large and Small Bitter Lakes. Del decided to follow them. If there was a way around the checkpoint this was as good as any.
They were on foot for an hour. Soon they arrived at a makeshift camp sprawling among Egyptian homes, a little compound snug back off the road. At least a hundred cots were set up, most exposed to the winds and dust with nothing more than prayers to Allah for good weather. Del could see the houses were overflowing. The three local couples were working themselves half to death trying to bandage up their guests, scrounge up blankets, and pass out the white box lunches that had been hastily dumped in a pile by an impatient gang of Israeli soldiers.
Del with her remarkable Changed memory knew everyone in her 2190-person battalion by name. She said, “I recognize a few of our people here. Find out who isn’t hurt too bad. Find out who is with me and quietly, father. Keep it quiet.”
One lady, the oldest of the six, took the time to straighten up and spare Del a smile.
“I didn’t think it was possible,” Del said, using Arabic.
“What do you mean?”
“Why are you supporting your invaders?”
“Grow up girl! We don’t even think to play politics with the wounded. Lend me a hand here.”
So that was it. Egypt was no neat monolithic bloc loyal to the Islamist theocracy in Cairo but a society like any other. Big, messy, and out of control. And here were six people trying to put together in their small way what the war was tearing down in broad strokes. Was it futile? Absolutely. But Del felt as if she’d been graciously allowed to help feed the troops.
The lady returned to her after she and worked for a while and introduced herself as Henna Naguib.
“I am Major Del Gonen.”
Henna told her, “Geography and politics, Major. You’re looking at the results of the best kept secret in the nation. The Suez zone is a bloody meatgrinder.”
“I’ve already seen it is a trap.”
“We call it the Chute. If you believe the government’s maps the Chute is a wide and easy plain decorated with garden cities unaccustomed to war and ready for the taking. Don’t believe their accursed maps!”
“A beautiful deception that was,” Del admitted. “We’ve got higher eschelon officers in Zahal all positioning and intriguing for the chance to cakewalk in here.”
“Look around you and see the results of that little theory!”
Brand had managed to round up eighteen men from Bravo Battalion whose wounds had been treated and who felt they were ready to get back in the fray. Seeing Del tend the fallen had done the trick. No wide-load sitting back at a desk in Suez City was she, but one willing to share their hard- ships and carry her own burden. To go back to Israel on a pussy chit now seemed unthinkable.
Brand repeated the scraps of information he had obtained from some of his men. “Del, they only hold ten grid squares centered on Gineifa. It is stalemate on the ground. We surround them on three sides but there is such a build-up in the area it could tip either way very soon.”
Del asked the old woman discretely if there was a path around the check-point.
“There is one, through a minefield.”
“Land mines. Yet another surprise for you here in the Chute. But locals know if you keep to the shoreline of Great Bitter Lake, just at the transition between the mud and dry land, you can pass safely through.”
“Then I thank you, and we will trouble you no further.”
“Just a moment, Major. I can see that you have a certain urgency, and it is not only for yourself or even your nation.”
Del nodded. “I can end the bloodshed more quickly than you can imagine. But only if I can move quickly.”
Henna stared at her for a moment, then called out to her husband. “Kamal! I want to have a discussion!”
Her husband trotted over, slightly hunched but still thin and agile with garden work showing on his hands and stained clothes. This couple were raiding their precious garden to help feed this crowd.
She said, “The young lady needs to get north.”
Kamal smiled at that. “Young lady? That is Del! The Zionist Entity’s official monster!”
“Show her the trail along the shore.”
“What about you? You’ll be all that much more busier here.”
“I’ll make do.”
Those words seemed to be her motto, as surely as Del’s was ‘Follow Me.’ Henna had the poise of someone whose entire life was spent making do.
At one point on their hike along the shore of Great Bitter Lake a call from the B’nei Elohim came in for Del on her personal sat phone and she spent a few minutes accepting information and issuing orders.
Soon after that, the east was lit up brilliantly, like a camera flash that extended on and on. “Don’t look at it!” Del shouted.
Brand locked eyes with her instead. “Nucdet.”
“Bigger than that, father. Antimatter. We got some help from Mastema’s own Navy now. Nothing but gamma rays, wavelengths proton short. That means a pile of cooked Egyptians but no fallout and even their tanks might still run after we scrape out their ashes.”
After twenty seconds the light faded. There was no mushroom cloud.
“What does it mean?” someone asked.
“I think now,” Del said, “the country is safe. That would have taken out everything the Egyptians got across the canal and marshaled to invade Eretz Yisrael. But that doesn’t mean the war is over. Much blood remains to be shed.”
“No no no no no!”
Kamal seemed to be greatly disturbed by what he took to be the Israeli use of nuclear weapons, the first time they’d been used in anger on the surface of the Earth since Nagasaki in World War II. In space the big boom sticks were quite frequently lit off in anger, but Kamal knew nothing of that. Instead of being an Israel sympathizer he suddenly saw himself surrounded by strangers who had been renewed as his enemies and his heart wasn’t in this little walk anymore. He edged away from them, but Del spotted what he was doing.
“Where are you going sir?”
Kamal didn’t answer, didn’t turn around, he just kept walking, counting on the goodwill that he and Henna had earned to buy his way. Del said, louder, “Kamal, I will ask you this exactly once: stop where you are.”
He paused, then risked taking a few more steps and resumed his withdrawal. Del shot him in the back, dropping him face down in the sand. Brand looked at her, but dared not vocalize his question.
Del offered an explanation. “Keep to the waterline, Henna told us. But did you notice how Kamal would lead us inland from the waterline now and again, on a convoluted path? We’ve been deceived by that old couple. I wager that if we proceed along the shore, we will soon strike a mine.”
“Then let us follow our own tracks back out of here,” Brand offered. “We can exact vengeance on Henna at the least. If your suspicions are true, our wounded may be in danger back there.”
Del shook her head. “Then we will be yet another hour behind schedule.” By her original timetable she was supposed to be in Fayid by now, stepping into a boat. Many unforeseen delays now made that impossible.
She stood on the western shore of the swollen Great Bitter Lake, which was thoroughly mixed with the salt water of the Med and the Red Sea. With field binoculars she scanned the waters. This was the Reed Sea spoken of in Torah, confused in the popular imagination with the Red Sea. Precisely here, according to the scriptures cooked up by priests and scribes during the Babylonian Vacation, El was said to have parted the waters of this lake to let his escaping people cross to the other side. In those days the lake was an extension of the Gulf of Suez and so it really was part of the Red Sea back then.
The Greek cargo ship Galatea was just now steaming into the lake but Del knew she couldn’t count on a parting of the waters to get to it before it passed by.
They all stood around looking at her. Del froze for a minute to let the gears of her brain-case turn for a while. Finally she began stripping off her uniform, right down to her black panties and bra, revealing a surprisingly voluptuous but compact body. The men gaped at her at first, then came to and followed her example.
She said, “What is watertight? The lasers? Strap them on. Get rid of everything else, and ‘Follow Me’. We’re going for a swim.”
Salt water was more dense than fresh water, and very salty water like here in the Great Bitter Lake provided a good deal of bouyancy indeed. Swimming was easy. They followed Del out about a kilometer off-shore, where she flipped on her back and kicked lazily, waiting for Galatea to pull up and hopefully spot them.
The ship was loaded with Israeli soldiers. They fished them out of the water, rifles lowered again when they recognized their catch. There were some appreciative whistles at Del while she stood there in nothing but her black undies and bra. The 19 men with her, including Del’s father, standing there soaking wet, started to laugh as they finally understood what was happening. The 1185 other men and women of Bravo Battalion, the half she left behind in Elat, were aboard this cargo ship.
There were towels on hand, and fresh uniforms waiting for them below deck. As the ship continued to steam north, Del retired to a stateroom reserved for her, where she showered and caught up on the message traffic. She wanted to know what was happening with the war.
The antimatter burst had destroyed a column of 1,680 Egyptian battle tanks and about 1,400 Armored Personnel Carriers which had crossed the 1949 Armistice Line into the Negev Desert, over the old boundary of Israel. The air burst killed an estimated 18,000 Egyptians instantly. The main prong of the enemy attack had been blunted. The United State continued to airlift arms into Cairo but the military advantage had shifted back to Israel in the space of a few seconds.
Del noted that the Egyptian boys had gotten their fanciest toys, their tanks and APCs, across the canal first on the Ismailia bridge. Then after the bridge was destroyed they sent over fuel and ammunition for their toys on hastily erected pontoon bridges south of Lake Timsah. Only now, after the pontoons were in turn destroyed, and all the military hardware vaporized in a single strike, did they realize they had neglected the unglamorous but vital supply of drinking water. The latest Israeli intel traffic reported that the Egyptians were now trying to correct their oversight with a desperate logistics operation at Deversoir just north of the Great Bitter Lake.
Her officers gathered in the wardroom for midnight rations, and she used this opportunity to outline her plan. “Everyone will be armed with one laser rifle, two hundred rounds, and one very old, portable, wire-guided Anti-Tank Guided Weapon. But they shall not be used against tanks. Do not waste them on ammunition trucks or fuel trucks either. The Egyptians can’t drink petrol. All I want you to do is hit water trucks.”
“That’s what I said. Nothing but water trucks. Or water tanks. Or water pipes. Thirst is our weapon. That’s phase one. Phase two, we run south and raise calamity in the Egyptian rear at Fayid.”
“What formation do you have in mind for the attack?” Brand asked.
“None. Everyone stays in squads. No more of this bunching up nonsense. We fight the battle loose, the way we’ve trained so many times before, with everyone talking on their micros.”